When it comes to homes with failing stucco exteriors Greg Bustamante, president of Bustamante Engineers, Inc. in Plumstead Township, said three professionals are essential to the success of any remediation, correction or rebuilding project.
Those include a contractor, a moisture testing company and an engineer.
“I probably hear about issues with stucco [buildings] weekly,” from those either on the selling or buying side, Bustamante explained.
He said the drive and demand toward more energy efficient and super insulated homes is one of the major components of stucco failures.
“Moisture stays in the house [whereas] 30 to 40 years ago, we didn’t have airtight homes,” Bustamante said.
He explained that when moisture finds its way into or beneath the stucco “it would naturally breathe and dissipate” in homes older than 1990.
Trapped moisture sets the stage between the stucco and the materials on which it is applied for mold, mildew or rot to develop.
For homeowners seeking legal recourse for stucco building failures, a licensed engineer is the only professional who can render an expert opinion about a structural failing in a court of law.
“Sometimes these things go to litigation, and the engineer can provide expert witness,” Bustamante said.
Along with legal standing and litigation support, engineers also provide plans, specifications and construction management oversight on building projects involving failed stucco surfaces.
“We may get involved with the homeowner or building owner to make sure what they are putting back is correct,” he said.
Bustamante noted Bucks County “is rampant” with stucco failures.
He said problems with stucco exteriors and the resulting lawsuits began around 2000.
“The role of an engineer is after [you] tear off the stucco [and find] you have a big problem with the structure,” he said.
Bustamante recommends an engineer be involved with any remediation or correction project in which the scope of work includes structural issues.
“If it impacts the major load-bearing components of the property - the support beams, foundation, exterior walls,” etc., these should be addressed.
“An engineer provides a professional evaluation,” he said.
Until a problem shows itself in a big way most homeowners won’t look too closely to see if anything is wrong, which allows the issue to get worse.
Telltale signs of a problem beneath the stucco surface may include cracks and “tears” or staining discoloration, mostly around door lintels and windows.
Because of the number of stucco failures many home builders aren’t offering stucco homes any longer.
“And relocation companies don’t want to buy homes with stucco. It’s affecting a lot of people’s lives,” Bustamante explained.
To determine if a home is at risk, Bustamante said owners should consider an evaluation if their home or building was constructed after 1990 and any stucco product was applied over wood or wood lath.
What he sees in Pennsylvania is a condition where the material was not installed correctly, or windows or doorways were not flashed correctly allowing water and moisture an easy entry point beneath the stucco exterior surface.
Problems with stucco exteriors began cropping up because of changes in building materials and installation practices, and the absence of a uniform building code.
Pennsylvania adopted a statewide Uniform Construction Code in 2004.
Barrett said because construction crews are segmented, “the guys who do the stucco are not the guys who built the walls” causing a potential for disconnect in the process.
“It’s not necessarily a stucco issue, but a poor construction issue,” Bustamante explained.
Stucco has been around for a long time. Its use as a sculptural material and in architectural elements dates to ancient Roman, Etruscan and Egyptian civilizations, among others around the world.
Traditional stucco was made from lime, sand and water. Modern stucco, including stucco produced from about 1820 in the United States, was formulated using Portland cement.
“To blame the stucco itself is not correct,” said Peter Barrett, a spokesman for Dorken Systems, Inc., a firm headquartered in Ontario, Canada.
Barrett said stucco has a rich history of being a beautiful, long-lasting exterior finish for homes and buildings.
“With correct assembly and risk management, stucco can continue to provide years of service in the construction industry,” Barrett said.
It can also be used indoors as a wall and ceiling finish, though it is more frequently known as plaster on indoor surfaces, such as ceilings and walls.
Barrett said the product isn’t the issue but rather how it is applied in construction settings.
“The way walls were being built was changing but the methods of applying the stucco have not,” he remarked.
The Greater Philadelphia Stucco Remediation Forum